We know that stories are good for you, but did you know how good?
Stories trigger the same part of the brain that really likes sex and other pleasures. So you know that has to be good for sales.
That is according to Michel Neray, who has helped more than a thousand clients create and sharpen their stories. Not only do good stories help build sales, but they also help people become more effective leaders in all facets of their lives. Neray is also the co-author of the book The Great Crossover: Personal confidence in the age of the microchip.
Neray has pulled together his science and business management background with his marketing copywriting career to create a new way of engaging buyers. Telling stories is not just a way of packaging information, but it also lights up the listener’s brain with delight.
But only if done correctly. And how do you do that? It starts with a deep dive, Neray tells Publisher Paul Feldman in this month’s interview.
FELDMAN: We hear so much about the importance of a story. But why is it so important for salespeople to tell stories?
NERAY: Storytelling is the way that we are wired as human beings. Anthropologists as well as neuroscientists believe that storytelling evolved as an evolutionary advantage for humanity. Our minds and our bodies physically and chemically respond powerfully to both telling and hearing stories.
We know that when we listen to character-based stories, our brains make oxytocin, which in turn increases levels of empathy, trust and safety. We know that stories light up the same part of the brain that pleasure does. And when I say pleasure, I mean it lights up the same part of the brain that lights up when we have sex. It’s that core to who we are as a species.
We know that good stories excite our dopamine neurons, which make listeners feel good and therefore more receptive. We know for a fact that stories change our brain and body chemistry. What is the evolutionary advantage behind this?
Well, we learn through stories. We learn from other people’s mistakes, which is why in many cases we love hearing stories where other people have failed.
When we watch a movie or read a book or see a play, we’re empathizing with the main character, seeing what they go through, and in the back of our mind what we’re really doing is saying, “Well what would I do if I were in that situation? How would I handle that challenge?”
And that’s how we learn. That’s why these stories, whether they’re stories in conversations, whether they’re stories in movies or plays or books — that’s why we are so drawn to them and that’s why they’re so powerful.
FELDMAN: What are the keys to telling a good story?
NERAY: There are lots of keys. People don’t realize how naturally we tell stories. We’ve been listening to stories our entire lives, right from our cradles. We actually recognize a good story when we hear it, although we may not know that consciously.
Most of us are naturally good storytellers. When we come home from the office and we say, “Hey, you’ll never believe what happened today. So and so stood up in the boardroom meeting and announced this, and I couldn’t believe my ears.” Or “I went to the coffee machine and started chatting with one of my colleagues and you’d never believe what they told me, and this happened.”
On one hand, it’s incredibly easy for us to tell stories. On the other hand, if you really want to study the craft of storytelling, there are a lot of moving parts.
There’s the actual structure of the story. Most people don’t even know the point of their story. They start telling a story and they kind of ramble on or they have three endings or three beginnings and it takes a while to get to the point.
Knowing the point of your story is key. But I would caution people listening to or reading this from saying, “Therefore I should know what the point of this story is before even starting to attempt to tell it.” That would be a mistake.
It’s only through the telling and retelling of our story that the points of our story become clear to ourselves.
FELDMAN: What is the difference between the point and the purpose of a story?
NERAY: It is understanding the distinction between the personal element of the story, which is, “Here’s what happened to me; here’s what I went through. Here’s how I was feeling. Here is what happened next,” in terms of action.
And then the universal element of the story, which is, “Here is the general insight or the universal insight that we can all learn from.”
That’s the stuff of morals. That’s the stuff of generalizing it to the point of being able to apply it in many different situations.
FELDMAN: You study a lot of neurolinguistic programming. How does NLP apply to stories? How can we use that to tell better stories?
NERAY: NLP has become a massive field that people use for their own purposes. I understand NLP to be really a decoding of the way the brain works.
It’s about understanding what triggers people’s interests. Understanding the skepticisms and concerns that they have that they may never voice to you out loud, that they may never even be aware of themselves. Having a sensitivity of what those might be, we can address those things in our stories.
For example, I’m working with a group of insurance brokers serving business clients who tend to be older and successful. And these brokers tend to be younger.
So you might imagine that a skepticism that the clients have is, “Why should I deal with you? You are young and inexperienced.” They’ll never say that. They’re too polite, most of them. But the broker has to say, “What can I possibly do to overcome that skepticism?”
It’s not as tightly defined as a sales objection. It’s more of an ingoing skepticism. The person who’s on the listening end, who’s evaluating the person in front of them, might not even be fully aware that they have this skepticism. But they have it in the back of their mind.
That kind of sensitivity comes from an understanding of neurolinguistic programming.
The broker can begin with the client with a story of how they had a perception of somebody that they were working with who was younger than they had expected, but they realized the person was up on all these new techniques that they weren’t aware of and brought fresh thinking to the subject matter. Then they realized that they were hearing the same-old, same-old from everybody else that they had been dealing with.
If you make it too obvious, if you make it like a real insurance story, then the person is saying in the back of their mind, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, this is too obvious. They’re just saying this to me to position themselves in a better way.”
But if you take an experience and a story that relates to something outside of the field, then what you’re really doing is implanting in the listener’s mind, “There’s something in here that could be a huge benefit if I just open up a little bit and overcome some of my skepticisms.”
And the story could be something from an everyday occurrence of going to the store or dealing with someone at the office or another vendor at the office or something like that. Really, that’s all we want.
FELDMAN: You have talked about sales telepathy. What does that mean and how can we apply that?
NERAY: There’s an interesting story behind this. My background is marketing copywriting. I would write all kinds of copy, whether it was headlines for billboards, radio commercials, TV commercials. I would write magazine-length articles, brochures, homepages and letters at the beginning of annual reports on behalf of CEOs.
I had developed my own style of writing — because you always test and gauge what kind of response you get. I had developed this formula, this loose formula that I called sales telepathy.
People kept coming up to me and saying, “Michel, you must’ve done NLP.” And for the first five years of people telling me this, I would shrug my shoulders and ask, “What’s NLP?” But I kept getting this feedback, to the point where I said, “I’d better figure out and investigate what NLP is, because people keep thinking that’s what I do.”
And I discovered that a lot of the techniques that I had developed quite on my own were very similar and analogous to what people who’d studied NLP were doing and had discovered.
Sales telepathy is all about structuring a sales conversation that is story-like and creates a platform for people to accept you as a possible solution provider, and open their minds to what you have to offer. And to also overcome any of those skepticisms or lessen any of the skepticisms that we were talking about earlier that they have in the back of their mind.
You might’ve heard the saying, “People buy with their hearts and rationalize with their heads.” So we think we are making rational decisions all the time, but really what we’re doing is rationalizing what we want to do anyway.
It’s helpful for everybody to understand their own drivers and their own motivations and why they make decisions.
I think it would make the world a better place if we all understood why we do what we do. When we rationalize something, we have to be able to look at ourselves and laugh at ourselves: “Ha ha, I just made myself believe that there was a rational reason for me doing this. Ha ha, that’s very funny.”
This is where I get on my high horse about the ills of the world. Many of the problems of the world are driven by things that are in the back of our minds that we don’t even understand.
For example, racism comes from stereotyping. Again, an evolutionary advantage. We are wired to generalize, categorize, put in boxes and stereotype. Taken to an extreme, and not that far of an extreme, I have to say it leads to racism. And if we understand that, problems that come from racism might be lessened.
FELDMAN: How does a person read what the other person’s skepticism might be? In the case of sales, it could be a variety of issues.
NERAY: Very often people would say to me, “Yeah, but I have no idea what their skepticisms are. If I work with 100 different people, probably I have 100 different skepticisms to work with.”
But in fact, we find that I could have 100 people in the room and I list the top three skepticisms that they have, we’re going to have 80 percent of the people in the room nodding their heads.
To go even further, they’ll say, “How did you know? How did you know that’s what I’m thinking?” That’s where the sales telepathy comes from. If you come right out and say, “Hey, listen, I know if I were in your position I might be thinking…” and list the top three things, then people say, “You know what? Now that you mention it, I do think that.”
FELDMAN: What about the “why” you do what you do? Is that important to talk about with a prospect and, if so, when do you talk about it?
NERAY: We’re not so interested in this particular case of why I sell insurance. We’re interested in why I sell insurance in this particular way. There’s always a story behind that. It’s not easy to find, but there’s always a story behind that. That’s where the gold is; that’s where the differentiation is.
FELDMAN: How do you discover your own story?
NERAY: It does require a second person to help you peel back the layers for you. I had to do the same thing for myself. I was running an ad agency and my clients kept on telling me, “Michel, how did you get to our differentiation so quickly?” And for the longest time I would just shrug my shoulders.
We’re taught to feel uncomfortable with compliments. In most cases we don’t take them graciously. We tend to shrug them off and say, “Oh, that’s nothing. Thank you, but oh, that’s nothing.” That’s what I’d been doing and I never really paid much attention to it.
The real reason why we say “Oh, that’s nothing” is because it really does feel like nothing to us. “I don’t know; it’s just what I do.” How many times have we said that to people?
What I’ve learned is that when somebody says that to me, I really have to stop and pay attention and ask, “Well, what exactly was I doing, and what exactly was that person referring to? What challenge specifically did that person have?”
Remember, everything relates back to the challenge that the other person has. That’s what piques their interest and their listening. Because they want to know how to solve their own problems. They’re not interested in me for my sake. They’re interested in me for their own sake.
This goes back to the storytelling theory of why we watch and why we become so involved with characters. We want to learn what we should do or could do in a situation that they’re facing.
FELDMAN: How did you discern your own story?
NERAY: I sat down with a friend of mine at my dining room table and he asked me very simple questions. “What do you do next? And why do you do that?”
He forced me to think about it and give him the answers. Then I said, “I don’t know, isn’t that obvious?” He said, “No, it’s not obvious.”
But it was obvious to me and I guess it’s not obvious to everybody else. That’s why it has value to everybody else. What we do so naturally, we also do invisibly, which is why most of the time we’re not even aware of our own greatest value.
FELDMAN: Once you have the answers on the process, what’s next?
NERAY: Then we say, “Well, where did that come from?” In my case, it’s something that took me 40 years to deconstruct and figure out. My mother was a Holocaust survivor — she spent a year in Auschwitz.
I grew up as a little French-Jewish kid in an English-Protestant school, because my mother was from France. So we moved to Montreal, which ostensibly was French-speaking, except I grew up in a little English neighborhood.
So I grew up as a little French-Jewish kid in an English-Protestant school in a French-Catholic province.
And it didn’t matter what group of kids I hung out with — I was always the odd kid out. I was a shy kid. And you might think a shy little kid like that might do everything in his little power to kind of blend in and not stand out, but that’s not what I did.
In reverse-engineering why I do how I do what I do, I believe that the reason why I never tried to blend in was because of the experience of my parents in the Second World War — my mother being a Holocaust survivor and my father fighting in the French Foreign Legion. Just being keenly aware of never again wanting to be ashamed or trying to hide who I was.
FELDMAN: Thanks for sharing that story. How would I, as a regular business owner, an insurance agent, do that exploration? What are the steps to do that?
NERAY: If you ask the usual and expected questions, you’ll get the usual and expected answers. The classic way that most people would start this is they’ll ask, “What are you passionate about? What do you love doing?
There’s a whole other back theory around positive versus negative. We’d like to think of ourselves as positive people. We think that what drives us mostly are the positive things in life, like what we want to accomplish.
But in fact, most of us are driven by what we don’t like. And so asking, “What are you passionate about? What do you love about what you’re doing?,” you’re going to get the same kind of bunk that everybody else gives: “Well, I love helping people retire better with peace of mind,” et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
So a key question that I ask by going the negative route is, “So what drives you crazy about the way that other people in your industry operate?”
Now, it might appear that we’re slamming other people, and nobody likes to slam the competition. But I need to go down that road of really looking at the way the industry works and asking, what drives you crazy about it? Because subconsciously that’s what you’re trying to fix.
This goes back to evolution theory — that we are all driven to solve problems. As human beings, we are problem-solving machines. That is what has created all the progress in this world. If we weren’t driven to solve problems and fix things that didn’t work or fix things that could work better, then we wouldn’t have this highly civilized, mechanized world that we live in today.
FELDMAN: That’s a great way to start the process. How do you get down to that differentiator of what makes me special and why people like my service in particular?
NERAY: Key in that second step is the question, “What underlying principle does that violate in my point of view? What do I think is so wrong or bad or counterproductive about that?” And really examining that very carefully.
That leads to the motivation. And then the next question would be, “Well, why am I so sensitive about that? Why does that really get stuck in my craw?”
That brings up a thought process about who I am as a human being, why I feel a certain way about these topics and where I learned it.
FELDMAN: So in your case, in asking those questions and peeling back the layers, it led you to your childhood and how you developed and how you survived.
NERAY: Yes, in my case it did. And in a surprising number of other examples that I’ve worked with, it always leads to a pivotal stage of somebody’s life.
FELDMAN: Is it also important to let the audience know why you’re telling the story?
NERAY: Yes, the third step is the phraseology of it. Now I know what I do that’s unique, and I know why I do how I do what I do. Now, how can I turn that into communication that works?
Can I turn this into provocative questions? That is my version of the elevator pitch. And if I could do that, and elicit that kind of interest from the person standing in front of me, then chances are they’re going to say, “Well, I’d love to know more, because you’ve just hit on one of my frustrations too.”
FELDMAN: Crystalizing that understanding into provocative questions gets people thinking about the value you would deliver to them?
NERAY: Yes, which is directly related to a challenge or frustration that they have with the way that they are currently handling their insurance needs.
FELDMAN: And all that comes down to understanding your own story.
NERAY: When I started with that mindset, I became much more highly aware of the unique differences that everybody else brought to the party.
I truly believe that is the reason why 40 years later I was so successful and am so fast at helping my clients really home in on their key differentiation.
Sometimes it takes a conversation. Sometimes it takes a week of meetings. Sometimes it takes a facilitated workshop. There’s always a story.
I didn’t come at storytelling from just a theoretical or academic point of view. I came at it because I saw firsthand the power of storytelling in sales, marketing and advertising.
NEXT MONTH: Michel Neray reveals why elevator pitches are lame.